‘The Dawn of a New Naval Century’
The U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 1900–1909
Realizing an important strategic goal, the U.S. Naval Institute has just completed digitizing every issue of Proceedings published over 140 years. With the contents preserved electronically, they will be available to Members now and in the years to come to access, use, and enjoy.
As the 20th century dawned, the United States of America stepped into a new position on the world stage. The Indian Wars had ended in the previous decade. Manifest Destiny was complete.
Electricity was rapidly expanding through American cities. By 1900 the United States was the world’s leading agricultural producer, dominated the global petroleum industry with major oil fields in Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, and Andrew Carnegie had the world’s largest steel mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Marconi and the Wright Brothers were making real progress in their experiments with radio and powered flight. As Alfred Thayer Mahan predicted ten years earlier, America began looking outward.
With victory in the Spanish-American War, the United States took its place as one of the world’s naval powers. Alongside this military development, a series of World’s Fairs expanded the American people’s consciousness of the rest of the globe, and the start of the Progressive movement drove political discussion about government’s role both at home and internationally. As technological development accelerated and globalization began to drive international commerce, the officers of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps faced the start of a challenging but exciting decade. In 1900 the pages of The Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, the premier journal of naval and maritime thought, began to reflect the new realities of a new century.
The first 25 years of Proceedings, with the writings of luminaries like Admiral Stephen B. Luce, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, made the case for why the nation needed a powerful Navy. From 1900 to 1909 a shift began in the writing and thinking in Proceedings that focused on how to use the Navy as much as why the nation needed one. A new crop of thinkers and leaders were born in the journal’s pages. William Sims, Bradley Fiske, and Edward Beach, among others ,would lead reform in the Navy and Marine Corps and eventually rise to the highest levels of command in World War I.
The breadth of subjects covered in the first decade of the 20th century is staggering, and demonstrates the healthy and sometimes contentious state of naval debate during the period. In the short space available it is impossible to cover all of them. The following highlights appear to be particularly relevant for today’s readers. However, there is an incredible wealth of material here for further study by both historians and officers interested in their profession.
Throughout the period Proceedings remained a focal point for the discussion of contemporary naval operations. Articles in the opening years of the decade continued to examine the results of the Spanish-American War to determine ways to improve both tactically and operationally. Mid-decade there was heavy discussion of the Russo-Japanese War, in particular lessons to be learned from the Battle of Tsushima. But there were also articles on Navy and Marine Corps involvement in irregular conflicts like the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion.
One of the subjects that dominated the early years of the decade and continued at a low simmer, was discussion of coastal defense and the introduction of self-propelled torpedoes and torpedo boats. The threat of the Spanish fleet descending on the East Coast of the United States was a severe restriction on the Navy’s war planning in 1898. In the pages of Proceedings, officers explored the need to be able to contest an enemy’s access to the American coastline and deny areas to opposing fleets. Starting with the very first articles published in the period, Lieutenant R. H. Jackson’s 1900 General Prize-winning “Torpedo Craft: Types and Employment” and Lieutenant L. H. Chandler’s “The Automobile Torpedo and Its Uses,” swarming torpedo boats and the game-changing weapon called the automobile torpedo inspired creative new ideas from the world’s rising naval power.
While the fleet had grown significantly in both size and shape during the preceding 25 years, much of the Navy’s organization remained stagnant. Military conservatism was alive and well among many of the service’s senior leaders. This resulted in a multitude of calls for reform from the junior and mid-grade ranks so strongly represented in the pages of Proceedings. Numerous articles made the case for improved training for new officers and sailors and suggested new ways to deliver it. There were also several Marines who wrote articles advocating adoption of more rigorous drill manuals and reorganization of the Marine Corps at both the company and regimental levels.
According to several authors, the promotion and personnel system for officers was in dire need of reform. Starting with Lieutenant Richard Jackson’s 1905 article “Promotion, Present and Prospective” a healthy debate erupted over the subject as many argued for the introduction of merit-based promotion by selection, rather than simple seniority, and others contested the idea. In 1906 the General Prize was awarded to Commander Hawley Rittenhouse for his essay “Promotion by Selection” which set the tenor for the debate that continued well into the next decade.
But Proceedings’ authors weren’t just writing about organization and training or anti-access operations. The technology of naval warfare was the source of rigorous essays as well. Specifically, the future of the battleship seemed to dominate the journal’s pages for the entire decade. Starting with Captain Asa Walker’s article “With Reference to the Size of Fighting Ships” in 1900, the debate centered around the balancing of speed, armor, and size of the guns. Contributions came from as far away as the United Kingdom and Italy. Lieutenant Homer Poundstone, who wrote two articles on the subject, would become a central figure in the discussion both with the Institute and in Washington, D.C.
The climax of the give and take occurred in 1905 and 1906, when Captain Mahan and Lieutenant Commander Sims presented dueling views on the value of the all-big-gun battleship. The arguments were so comprehensive and compelling that both articles were entered into the record of the U.S. Senate during naval debates and they were reprinted in newspapers and magazines around the country. In 1907 the debate came to life when the Royal Navy made its new all-big-gun battleship HMS Dreadnought the flagship of the Home Fleet, and the U.S. Navy rushed to catch up.
The issues of Proceedings from 1900 to 1909 were dominated by the writing of junior officers. It is interesting to note that during the period only three active-duty admirals were published in its pages. Under the guidance of Phillip Alger, a civilian professor at the Naval Academy who took over as editor in 1903 and served well into the next decade, Proceedings became the center of vital naval reforms needed to set the stage for American ascendance on the world’s oceans. It was the birthplace of ideas that would set the course for a new naval century.
Lieutenant Commander Armstrong is a naval aviator and a member of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Editorial Board. He has served as an amphibious search-and-rescue pilot and led a MH-60S gunship detachment during Operation Unified Protector. His book, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education & Leadership for the Modern Era, is forthcoming from the Naval Institute Press.